It all started one day when Elizabeth Millard was feeling tired and worn out from working the farm she co-founded near Minneapolis, Minnesota. She grabbed a couple of leaves of Holy Basil off a nearby plant and popped them in her mouth. Moments later, she says, she felt surprisingly energized. “That’s when I really started to recognize the potency and medicinal potential of herbs and other plants,” says Millard, who went on to write the book Backyard Pharmacy. “We can grow our own medicine.”
Brian Hetrich sees firsthand the healing power of plants. His job is to grow many of the fruits and vegetables served at the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, which emphasizes food as medicine. “Nature has provided some very powerful tools for boosting your body’s immune system, which is ultimately what keeps you strong and healthy,” says Hetrich, who was trained as a naturopathic doctor. “There’s no better way to harness the healing potential of food than by growing it yourself in your own garden.”
Fortunately, you don’t need a green thumb to turn seeds or small plants into robust herbs and vegetables. (And worst case, there’s always the farmers’ market!) Here, Hetrich and Millard list their top picks for easy-to-grow plants with documented healing abilities. For best results, eat your produce whole, fresh, ripe, and raw.
Superpowers: It’s antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal, and it reduces inflammation. Studies show garlic can lower the risk of lung cancer, prostate cancer, and osteoarthritis, and destroy certain cancer cells. Preliminary findings suggest that it may also lower high cholesterol and blood pressure in people with hypertension.
Everyday perk: Eating garlic regularly could help you avoid the common cold, according to a study in the journal American Family Physician. Millard likes to mince fresh garlic, let it sit 15 minutes for the active ingredients to “develop,” and then swallow it like a pill if she feels like she’s getting sick. “It’s not great for personal relationships but it’s incredibly effective,” she says. “I haven’t had a cold in 10 years.”
Growing guide: In spring or fall, buy “seed garlic” online or from a local farmer or gardening supply store. (Don’t bother trying to plant bulbs from the supermarket, which have been sprayed so they won’t sprout.) Plant individual cloves, sharper side facing up, about 3 to 4 inches below the soil and about 18 inches apart. If you’re planting in the fall, cover the soil with some type of mulch (straw, hay, leaves, or grass clippings) to keep it warm in winter. When the ropey tendril that is the flowering stalk of the plant grows in spring, snip it off to keep the nutrients going down into the garlic instead of into flowers. Wait two weeks; then harvest the bulbs.
Superpowers: With concentrated stores of the compound sulforaphane, broccoli sprouts mobilize the body’s natural cancer-fighting resources, inhibiting tumor growth. Johns Hopkins University researchers call broccoli sprouts—which also deliver a full profile of enzymes, vitamins and minerals—the single most powerful cancer-fighter around. The sprouts have also been shown to lower blood sugar and cholesterol to protect against heart disease. They’re 10 to 30 times more potent than fully grown broccoli because they’re baby plants in their prime.
Everyday perk: Sulforaphane may reduce symptoms of asthma and other respiratory disorders, according two separate peer-reviewed studies, because it tamps down oxidative stress and inflammation in the airways.
Growing guide: At any time of year, place one-half cup of broccoli sprout seeds in a mason jar with a sprout lid (or cheese cloth secured with a rubber band). Add 2 cups of room temperature water and soak for 8 hours. Drain. Rinse again and repeat the process twice a day for three days.Your sprouts are sweetest, most tender and most nutritious when the tails, or the roots, are about one-half inch to three-quarters of an inch long. Yields approximately two cups in just 72 hours! Sprouts can be dried and stored in the refrigerator in a covered container, where they will keep for up to five days.
Superpowers: Mint may beat back prostate and liver cancer using the compound peryllyl alcohol, along with carotenoids and retinoids, according to two 2012 studies. Another compound, rosmarinic acid, scavenges free radicals and lowers inflammation, reducing seasonal allergy symptoms significantly, according to other findings. Preliminary lab tests suggest that peppermint oil may also boost the effectiveness of medications used for yeast infections.
Everyday perk: Mint can ease digestion. It works by relaxing the muscular lining of the digestive tract to quiet cramps and gas and reduce abdominal pain—even in people with irritable bowel syndrome, according to a 2010 study. “Mint is a good thing to have when you realize that you shouldn’t have eaten all that food on a stick at the state fair,” Millard says.
Growing guide: In the spring, buy a starter plant and grow it in a pot (lest it take over the rest of your garden because it’s so invasive). Give it partial sun rather than full sun—plants are always growing and expending energy when exposed to sunlight, so taking it into the shade for some of the day gives it a break. Err on the side of dryness. Herbs hate soggy roots!
Superpowers: This slender stalk has one of the all-time highest levels of glutathione, a detoxifying compound that removes poisons, including carcinogens and free radicals, from the body. It’s also anti-inflammatory, making it a top fighter of common chronic health problems including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. Asparagus is also rich in B vitamins, folate, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, zinc, manganese, selenium, and iron.
Everyday perk: Asparagus could be your hangover helper. Korean researchers have found that its extracts boost levels of enzymes that are key to breaking down alcohol.
Growing guide: Plant this perennial once and you’ll have stalks for 25 years. In early spring, buy one-year old Jersey Knight or Jersey Giant crowns and plant them in an area of your yard that is well drained and gets full sun. Plant asparagus crowns 6 inches down into rich or sandy soil. Place them in 4 rows, 12 inches apart. Cover them with 3 inches of soil. After two weeks, add more soil so it’s slightly mounded above ground level. Cover with plenty of mulch to keep out weeds, and water regularly (at least once every three days if it’s not raining). Hetrich suggests not harvesting any spears in the first two years so that all the plant’s energy can be used for establishing deep roots. When you do, use a sharp knife to cut the spears at ground level. Make the most of your bounty with these 8 delicious asparagus recipes.
Superpowers: Antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, not to mention beta-carotene and magnesium, give basil a key role in protecting cells against a host of diseases, including heart disease, asthma, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
Everyday perk: It may help soothe headaches. A component of basil called eugenol has been shown to work in the same way as over-the-counter remedies such as aspirin and ibuprofen to block the activity of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). Millard recommends chewing on basil leaves to dull headache pain.
Growing guide: There are more than 60 varieties, but Millard prefers Sweet Italian, Luscious, Thai basil (which has a licorice taste) and purple basil (because it’s pretty). Buy a starter plant in the spring and transplant it outside immediately, using standard outdoor gardening soil—make sure it’s not too compacted. Water the soil instead of the leaves, because they can be susceptible to disease. Expect your basil to grow to about 5 inches tall, depending on the variety.
Red Cabbage Microgreens
Superpowers: USDA researchers in 2012 found that red cabbage microgreens—the super-baby version of red cabbage, less than 2 weeks old—have a six-fold higher vitamin C concentration and 69 times the vitamin K of the mature vegetable. Vitamin C is a superstar antioxidant, fighting inflammation and guarding against cell damage to help prevent chronic conditions, including heart disease. It’s also a key ingredient in collagen, strengthening muscles, skin, bones, and other connective tissues. Vitamin K helps with blood clotting and bone building, keeping osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, and cancer at bay, according to another 2012 study.
Everyday perk: Help prevent colds and flu. Vitamin C boosts the immune system by stimulating production of white blood cells—the body’s first line of defense against bacteria and infections.
Growing guide: Start with red cabbage seeds—or special microgreen seeds. Fill a seeding tray (or even a baking dish) with about two inches of organic potting soil or seed-starting medium. Sprinkle the seeds around and add a light layer of soil on top. Water thoroughly just this one time; then set the tray on a sunny windowsill and use a spray bottle to mist with water a few times a day. In a little over a week, you should have a lush mini field of microgreens. Harvest at the 10-day mark, when greens are about two inches high.
Superpowers: This antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial herb is one of the most well documented medicinal plants in the world, according to the National Institutes of Health. Preliminary findings suggest that it may deactivate cancer cells, but proven benefits include speeding wound healing (especially burns), preventing and treating colds, protecting against bacterial infections, calming muscle spasms (great for menstrual cramps), easing stomach upset and promoting sleep.
Everyday perk: Chamomile tea is the ultimate chill-out tonic, soothing frayed nerves. German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) may relieve anxiety and even reduce symptoms of mild depression, according to a 2012 study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Growing guide: Buy a packet of seeds and plant them inside initially because the roots like to be warm. (Or invest in a germination heat mat, about $20 at gardening shops). After six to eight weeks, transplant chamomile to a sunny spot outside with good airflow. Water it about once a week, or when it looks dry. (Chamomile is happiest when somewhat neglected.) In a couple months, harvest the little yellow and white daisy-like flowers. Dry them on a screen or a rack. Crumble the flowers and place them directly in a tea ball. Add boiling water, steep, and enjoy!